Sneaking from the hip

I’ve had this piece half-written in my drafts for ages, and then the good people at Alamy tweeted a thing about back-button focussing which finally kicked me into motion. So if you’re already sick to the back (hah!) teeth with this topic, well I guess that’ll jolly well teach me won’t it. In any case here’s my take on  back-button focussing, as practiced in the markets and workshops of Burma . . .

First up then, for those wonder what the f..ocus that is, it’s simply assigning the auto-focus to a button on the back of the camera. So instead of half-pressing the shutter to lock focus, then fully press it to snap, you instead use your thumb on a different button to lock focus and the shutter button purely fires the, um, shutter.

There are plenty of good reasons to do this: in servo mode it lets you keep tracking the moving thing and pick your moment separately; with static things you can lock your focus in and not worry about it trying to refocus every time you shoot; you can easily switch between single and constant focussing (set the camera up in servo mode – tap the button for single focus, hold it down for continuous), and so on.

The reason I like it is because it’s sneaky.

A case in point was my recent time in Burma – especially getting people shots in the markets and artisans. Many photographers will get full on portraits of characterful faces and I really love those pictures, but that’s just not my style. Partly I’m an antisocial swine, so the odds of me actually engaging someone are practically nil.


One of the rare occasions I actually spoke to someone

But I also just prefer getting candids: catching people doing their thing completely naturally.

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb this guy making a bowl for lacquering

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb this guy making a bowl for lacquering

Besides which, a lot of these places were absolute heaving and the notion of, say, crouching down in the middle of a tiny market aisle with a dirty great backpack while you work just that shot, well it doesn’t bear thinking about. The Burmese are a universally wonderful, welcoming people but they’re not above the occasional knee in the kidney if some tubby western oaf gets between them and their dried shrimp.

So here’s how it works: I have one of those sling-style straps (I’d be happy to name the brand if the folks at Black Rapid felt like throwing some goodies my way) so the camera rides round about my right hip. I prowl around with thumb poised on focus and finger on shutter and when I’m alongside an Interesting Thing, away we go.

I doubt this lady would have posed with her cash, even if I could ask

I doubt this lady would have posed with her cash, even if I could ask

Obviously you don’t need to use back-button focussing for this – the regular shutter-button thing will do – but to me the key is being quick, and unnoticed. The back button technique helps if only in that the visible bit – the shutter finger – is so much faster and more subtle.

Clearly this approach means composition is pretty much a guess but you’d be surprised how quickly you get the hang of it. Using a reasonably wide lens gives more room for error, and I’m not above slapping the AF on centre point and cropping for composition later – this technique is all about the decisive moment.


That’s my excuse anyway.

Exposure too can be a challenge – the light was pretty ropey in most places, and while I’m a sucker for shooting wide-open it’s a risky gambit for this method.

So here’s what I did: I mainly stuck to prime lenses (twonking around with the zoom not generally being the height of discretion) and usually the 35mm, being moderately wide and quite forgiving.

The camera was in aperture priority at around f4 in the hopes of giving myself enough leeway on focus, some chance of nice bokeh, and an optimistic hope of keeping the shutter speed sensible (wideish lens helping with this too of course). Over time I ended up stopping down further – it was so chaotic I was just missing too many shots.

Veg? Oh, go on then

Veg? Oh, go on then

I chucked the ISO to about 1600 or 3200 and relied on (sneaky) chimping to tell me when to tweak it. Noise would have to be dealt with later. Or ignored, depending.

Then it was a case of stalking around with eyes peeled and hand casually on the camera. Find an interesting spot and stop to have a look – of if you’re especially sneaky, look at something else – while subtly swinging the camera into the right sort of place. The thumb gently taps the focus button (no-one has any idea what you’re doing! Heheheeee!). NOW you pause for just a moment – don’t knacker that focus – and snap. Move on with extreme casualness and, whatever you do, don’t look back.

Ultimately this is not a hugely refined or considered process, and to me it’s very much about finding rather than creating an image. And you’ve got to accept that you’ll get a load of junk.

Just for honesty’s sake, this display of Nats (animist deities incorporated into the Buddhist tradition in Burma) is a case in point. It was a vast and vivid display about 4ft tall in the entranceway to a temple. Exposure issues aside (I haven’t bothered with editing for obvious reasons), I simply had the camera pointing too low so cut out at least half of it, and got a load of lovely floor instead.

I thought this arrangement of Nat figures would work. I was wrong

I thought this arrangement of Nat figures would work. I was wrong

 I still hate myself for it.

The guy at this fish stall was in no rush, but the few hundred people behind me certainly were. To have got down and framed it in the viewfinder would’ve been completely impractical, and there’s every chance he’d have seen me and reacted in some way. But with my thumb on the back button, I saw the shot and nabbed it – and I’m pretty pleased with the result.


So with a little practice you can, to coin a phrase, start to see from the groin (which frankly is pretty rewarding in itself) and when it works, you have something that would be practically impossible to get any other way.

Images taken within a few feet of Tintern Abbey

With apologies to W Wordsworth

I’ve no intention of turning this into a “what I done on my holidays”, not least because footling with cameras for hours tends not to play nicely with Family Time. But I did want to give the Landmark Trust a plug, and burble on a bit about Tintern Abbey, one of my favourite places. Besides it’s all I’ve done for the last week.

The Landmark Trust is a great organisation maintaining a huge variety of interesting historic buildings, which you can stay in for – generally – extraordinarily reasonable rates. Everything from cottages to (literally) castles and well worth a look. We’ve just had a post-Christmas get-together for some of the extended family at Shelwick Court.

Shelwick Court, Hereford

Shelwick Court, Hereford

It’s a rather splendid old farmhouse just outside Hereford which features (no-one knows why) a medieval great hall, pinched from no-one knows where!

The medieval great hall - enormous, yet cosy

The medieval great hall – enormous, yet cosy

As living rooms go I think I could probably cope with this, though I’m afraid images of the interior are restricted to protect the innocent.

In any case, when you’ve got family around and you’re sitting up until the wee hours setting the world to rights over multiple bottles of wine, the photos kind of have to take a back seat. Certainly sunrise shoots don’t really happen.

However the joy of this time of year is that, as long as it’s not tipping down (which to be fair is most of the time), you’ve got a decent chance of some really nice light at any time of the day.

So one sunny day, we loaded my dear old Mum’s mobility scooter in the boot and took her for a drive down the lovely Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey.

I love Tintern. We’ve got ruins coming out of our ears in Britain but Tintern isn’t your average 3-foot walls and a pile of rubble – this has Substance.

The particular joy of Tintern for me is that the main walls are pretty much intact, along with the ornate window frames, but the roof and glass are all gone, so you get a wonderful play of light, shade and shape. The fact that the floor is now neatly trimmed grass gives it a special character too, as well as bringing an extra colour element in.


Anyway, I was travelling light with just 35mm and 85mm primes so there was no scope for super-wide shots. No, it was all about shapes and shadows.


Repeating arches of stone and shadow


One of these days I’m going to book into a B&B for a week and ramble around the hills with a big long lens getting the whole thing from all angles, at all hours of the day. But that’s not really disabled-friendly so this time I made do with pottering around in the low winter sun. It was no hardship really.IMG_9116

PS. A note on disabled access: Shelwick Court isn’t set up for disabled access, and is certainly not wheelchair-accessible. Sadly that’s often the nature of old buildings. Fortunately my Mother still has limited mobility so could just about manage the stairs – a struggle, but worthwhile. Tintern Abbey does have disabled access though it may involve a short romp across  grass – in that sense it’s probably easier for wheelchairs than my Mum’s little scooter.